What We Are Not Wired To Expect
This might come as a surprise, I'm hoping it comes as a pleasant surprise, because if there's one thing we are not wired to expect, it's beautiful writing. The brain is far less picky about beautiful writing than we've been led to believe. We have been severely misinformed on that particular topic. The problem is that writers tend to define themselves as writers based on their ability to write beautifully right out of the starting gate, it's their ability to write beautifully, having nothing to do with story yet at all, it's just that they write really well. And the sad thing is, the tragic thing is, is that that not only keeps writers from getting out of the starting gate, it keeps them from getting into the starting gate, because if you can't write that perfect first sentence, what's the point of writing the second sentence? The truth is, the truth is, if you dig down and you create a story that meets these 13 hardwired expectations, chances are, the writing is going to be beautiful ...
anyway because it is the story that makes the writing beautiful. It is the story that polishes the prose, not the other way around. The truth is, if you meet these 13 hardwired expectations, it doesn't matter at the end of the day if your writing is beautiful, because the truth is, story trumps beautiful writing every time. Writers who concentrate on writing beautiful out of the starting gate end up writing story-less novels that are beautifully written, and they are known in the trade as a perfectly penned so what? A beautifully written who cares. The problem is that it is so hard to let go of that notion that it is your ability to write beautifully that makes you a writer that writers really struggle with it. It was really brought home to me a couple of years ago, we were working with a workshop of writers, we'd been working with them for a while, and they were talking about the things that they were struggling with with their writing, like where were they having trouble. And most people would talk about something fairly simple and easy that we could then dive into and fix pretty quickly. But this one woman. She said, it took her a minute. She said, the thing that I've been struggling with the most in this workshop, and in fact, in my entire writing career, she said, is the fear of writing ugly. Now to be very clear, she did not mean the fear of writing about the hard, ugly truths of life, that is not what she meant. She meant literally writing prose that were not beautiful right out of the starting gate. She said, you know when I'm digging deep and I'm trying to really get to my story, I feel like my writing is cumbersome, it's clunky, it's inelegant. And that makes me feel like I'm faking it. Like I'm not a real writer. And I start to feel ashamed and embarrassed. And here's the really interesting thing, 'cause it was hard for her to say that. It's hard to open up and be vulnerable and say something that shows that you might not know everything, because by doing that, those other writers, I mean, her fear was the other writers would go, oh, I never think that, my writing's always beautiful out of the starting gate. Being a writer means being vulnerable. Because you know what actually happened at that moment? What actually happened is every other writer said, yeah, me too. I struggle with that too. It was a really wonderful moment. The great thing about it was that it also let us really dive into why it's not about beautiful writing. Why that isn't even the point. Because let's just talk about that for a minute, the notion of beautiful writing. That writing beautifully is what makes you a writer. And writers like to say that all the time, I write beautifully. They'll say, I'm a, and you'll be able to tell by the way I say this word how I feel about it, they'll go, I'm a wordsmith. That's what I am, I'm a wordsmith. I write because I have a love of language and that makes me a wordsmith. But let's talk about that for a second. Words. What actually are words? Words, when spoken, are just sounds. Words, when written, are just squiggles on a page. When it comes to sign language, words are just hand gestures. In other words, words, in and of themselves, are nothing. Words are empty, they are an empty vessel. What words are, is words are a tool. Words are conveyor of meaning. It is the meaning, digging down into the meaning of your story that then makes those words beautiful. Without the meaning, all you have are empty words. And this is what happens all the time, writers will talk about, I wanna be a writer, and I write beautifully, I get it onto the page beautifully. I'm really good at writing it, I'm a wordsmith, I can get it onto the page, and you think about, okay, what is it? What are you talking about when you talk about it? It is the story. You need to dig deep into the story in order to have something to say and in order to then be able to put that into words. In fact, the deeper you dig, the more meaningful the words become. The deeper you dig, the more meaningful the words become, the more beautiful the words become, and at that point, even the simplest, humblest, plainest words become beautiful and meaningful and powerful and potent and transformative. Trying to write beautifully out of the starting gate is sort of like, and this is the analogy I like to use. It's sort of like, imagine that you are a diamond miner. Not blood diamonds or anything, but ethical green diamonds, but I'm assuming even to get those you have to like go into one of those really narrow, dark dirt caves that gives me claustrophobia just to think about it. But imagine that's you and you've got that hard hat on, and it's got the light coming out of it. And so you're down in the mine, and you're looking around, and what you're hoping to see in that beam of light is the Hope diamond. You're hoping to come up with a treasure chest of gleaming, faceted, fully buffed diamonds, they're just gonna glitter and glow in the light. If that's what you're looking for out of the starting gate, you're going to miss the pay dirt. You're going to miss the diamonds in the rough that you need to dig deep in order to find and to bring up and then to make your prose really beautiful and shine with meaning. I mean, in other words, it's what's inside that counts. The problem is, that even as I say this to you, and intellectually you might go, yeah, I get that, okay, not about beautiful writing, let's dig deep. It is really hard to uproot that notion that you have to write beautifully out of the starting gate, and I think the reason for that is is because it has been so deeply inculcated in us since we were children, since we were five years old. And I don't say that lightly, I'm not just like, channeling my inner five year old. I saw this firsthand recently. I spent a couple of years in a small school district in New Jersey helping them incorporate story into how they teach writing. And so I was there, and I saw firsthand boots on the ground the way writing is taught to children. And again, this was K through eight, so kindergarten through eighth grade. And what I saw was that writing itself is taught as if it's about the mechanics of writing. As if it's about writing technique. And you know, it's stuff like, we all know this, like two long sentences, now you need a short. Here's what a paragraph looks like. Here's what a verb, here's what an adverb, here's what an adjective, whatever that thing is you're never supposed to put, I mean they learn all of that. About story, here's what they learn about story. This is interesting because adult writers hear this too. They'll go, a story has a beginning, a middle, wait for it, and an end. What doesn't have a beginning, a middle and an end other than Zeno's paradox? Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Or they would teach it like this, they'd go, they have these things called four squares, and they'll go, a story is first, then, next, last. That's math. That's sequencing, what could that possibly teach you about writing a story, how would that help you write anything really, other than perhaps a math problem, might be good for that. And when it comes to writing and the kind of prose that was value and the type of writing that was valued, it was very surface stuff. It was very safe stuff. Puppies and kittens and unicorns and rainbows. And the type of prose that were valued is the same type of really beautiful pretty prose like, you know, the dove was soaring through the air, and the dewdrops on her wings sparkled in the sun like, oh, I don't know, diamonds. That's the problem. It was all about surface beauty. And none of it was about what's beneath the surface. None of it was about any of the hard grittiness that actually moves us forward. That stories are actually about, that vulnerability that we're talking about. Because that's what stories are about. They're about being vulnerable. They're about what's beneath the surface. Surface beauty, we're not really interested in that, we kind of, as we'll discuss we understand the surface world really well. We wanna know what goes on beneath the surface, and that's where story lives and breathes. And the problem is, along with the notion of beautiful writing, which is safe, is what we need to go toward, we also at that age learn to begin to shut off that vulnerability. And I'm not blaming it on teachers, it's not just school, I think it happens at home, and it happens in society. Society teaches us, I mean, it's scary to be vulnerable because if you're vulnerable and you show somebody what you really believe or what you're afraid of, they might not like you. Or they might use it against you at some point. So it's really terrifying. Let me tell you a story. Before I went into that school district, I was on the phone, and I was talking with a woman who I was going to work with, we were gonna go into the classrooms together. She was the school's literacy coach, her name was Tara, she was young, she was brilliant, she gave me hope for the future, she was so amazing. But she said, before you come, I wanna give you some notion of what you're gonna find in the school. Not every teacher is like this. She said, but last year I went into a classroom and she said it was either third or fourth grade, she couldn't remember, third or fourth grade, they were eight or nine year old kids, and she said, and this little girl came up to me and said the teacher asked us to write something about something that happened to us over the summer. She said, would you mind reading this? So Tara took it and read it, and it was about what had happened when this little girl's mother sat her down and told her that they were getting a divorce. Now you can imagine, it was raw, it was gritty, and the truth is, writers struggle with this sometimes, kid logic is so much fresher and rawer and more honest than adult logic, 'cause they haven't learned euphemisms yet, so they don't really know, so it was really right there. And so Tara was reading it, and she said, that it was so hard not to just start to cry, like she was holding the tears back, she didn't want to turn into a blubbering mess right there in the classroom, so she said to the little girl, this is just amazing, thank you so much for sharing, this is so deep, are you okay, let me give you a hug. Let's go show it to your teacher, let's see what your teacher has to say. So they took it to the teacher. And the teacher sat at her desk and read it, and then she looked up, and the first thing she said was, you missed a couple of transition words. First words out of her mouth. Now can you imagine if you've opened yourself up like that and the first thing you hear is you missed a couple of transition words? You can bet that what that little girl learned at that point was, I'm not being open again. It's puppies and kittens and unicorns for me from here on out, because that's safe. We learn what's safe. Beautiful language is safe. Not being vulnerable is safe. Staying on the surface is safe. If you wanna be a writer, you can't be safe. And the thing about those kids were, that they really got it, they really understood story, I mean, we're wired for story so of course they did, but once we went in and we were teaching them what story was, it was amazing how quickly they got it. It's funny, after a couple of months, the principal of the school had two kids who went to the school, he had a son who was nine and a daughter who was seven. And he said that one day they were driving to school and his son was telling his daughter about some show he'd watched the night before, and the daughter said, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, but how did the character change? It's like, they really got it. I mean that's the thing about kids, they really knew, as readers, as we know, they knew what grabbed you, they knew what brought you in, they knew when you're reading a story you've got that great feeling, that sense of urgency, and you just can't wait, you're on the edge of your seat and you're turning pages, they knew that what you're thinking is oh my gosh, how is she gonna get out of that one? The one thing we're not thinking, and I think no matter how much as a writer you might think, yeah yeah, I hear you but it really is about writing beautifully, really, writing beautifully is what grabs us. When you're reading. Tell me. When you're reading and you've got that great sense of urgency, just going forward, and you're turning page after page, the one thing that is never in your mind, you're never thinking, I can't wait to turn the page because I have to find out what beautiful metaphor comes out of that writer's pen next? I mean, are you ever thinking that? Of course not! What beautiful, lovely, luscious prose are gonna capture me now? You know, if you're thinking about the prose, if you're thinking about the writer, then the writer hasn't done their job, because you shouldn't be thinking about anything. You should be experiencing the story. That is what stories do. When we experience the story, we really are there, they're done functional MRI studies that show when you're lost in a story, same areas of your brain light up that would light up if you were doing what that main character's doing. You really are there. So the question is why? Why would that be true? If we're wired for story and we're wired to expect some things and not to expect others, why? Why would we even be wired for story?